Ensure USDA maintains current school nutrition standards, rather than implements additional, unachievable rules.
Research shows students eat their healthiest meals at school, thanks to current nutrition standards, which limit calories, fat and sodium and require school meals to include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat milk. In February, USDA proposed stricter, long-term nutrition rules. However, school meal programs already face significant challenges maintaining current standards; meeting additional rules is not feasible and could result in fewer students eating school meals.
Persistent national labor shortages and supply chain issues had a lasting impact on the K-12 foodservice industry, limiting manufacturers’ and distributors’ capacity to produce and stock foods that meet highly specialized school nutrition standards. In SNA’s 2023 School Nutrition Trends Survey of school meal program directors nationwide:
- More than 90% reported challenges with menu item shortages and discontinued menu items.
- 88.8% reported challenges obtaining sufficient menu items (e.g. whole-grain, low-sodium, low-fat options) to meet current standards.
Federal waivers that protect schools from financial penalty if they cannot meet nutrition standards due to supply chain issues will expire June 30, 2023. Then, despite struggling to maintain current Target 1 sodium reductions, schools must also meet previously established Target 1A transitional sodium limits (effective July 2023). According to the survey:
- 97.8% of school nutrition directors are concerned about the availability of foods that meet Target 1A sodium limits and are acceptable to students.
- Meanwhile, 92.9% are challenged by staff shortages, which can limit efforts to increase scratch cooking.
With no end in sight to supply chain and labor challenges, survey respondents also indicated concerns about proposals to establish long-term standards.
- 94.4% were concerned about proposals to establish new limits on added sugar.
USDA’s proposed sugar limits initially target specific products, such as breakfast cereal. However, for respondents struggling with supply chain challenges, breakfast items (eg cereals, granola bars, biscuits, pancakes) were the most challenging foods to procure.
Since schools are the healthiest place children eat, school nutrition professionals work hard to make nutritious meals appealing so students continue consuming them. Frontline school nutrition staff witness food-insecure children who choose not to eat at all if the meal is not familiar or appetizing to them. Cultural and regional preferences often influence students’ willingness to eat healthy school meals. Even the Institute of Medicine warned that meeting later sodium targets “in a way that is well accepted by students will present major challenges and may not be possible.”
To keep students eating healthy school meals, SNA’s 2023 Position Paper supports maintaining current school nutrition standards, rather than implementing additional, unachievable rules.